A beginner’s manual to grievance gibberish

The authors of the most successful academic “hoax” of recent years explain just how to persuade learned journals to accept nonsense

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Beware of the dog park: James A. Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose with co-author Peter Boghossian (centre) (©MIKE NAYNA)

Last October, we revealed that we had spent much of the previous year and a half engaging in an academic probe that came to be known as the Grievance Studies Affair. In this effort, we got seven terrible papers accepted by well-regarded peer-reviewed academic journals dedicated to various types of “cultural studies”. Our work has mostly been understood as having been a set of “hoaxes”. This assessment suggests we sneaked absolute rubbish consisting of a jumble of politically fashionable buzzwords past these journals’ reviewers and thus revealed the weakness of peer review in these academic disciplines. Alternatively, it has been claimed that we revealed nothing because every field lets some bad papers in. Either way, this is a fundamental misunderstanding of what we did and why it worked.

To understand the significance of our probe — in which accepted papers included an alleged study of unwanted humping in dog parks to demonstrate rape culture, an advocacy of anal self-penetration by men to make them less transphobic and more feminist, and a rewrite of a section of Mein Kampf as intersectional feminism — it is essential to recognise that our papers were accepted because they were indistinguishable from the existing scholarship upon which they were based and alongside which they were published or to be published. It was not a series of mistakes by reviewers which enabled us to have seven papers accepted before we were forced to conclude our investigation — with seven more still in play. We managed this not by jumbling buzzwords together largely nonsensically but instead by conforming very closely to a complex web of ideological and epistemological requirements, getting better at this with practice and direction from reviewers.

This is why we referred to our probe as being most like a (largely uncontrolled) reflexive ethnography. In this kind of investigation, a researcher studies a culture or subculture as it is, immerses herself in it, learns its ways, and reflects them back to it. By the time we had to go public — due to investigation by large news outlets who saw the problem even if the journals couldn’t — we were getting rather good at this and thus have every reason to believe we could continue to write terrible papers and have them accepted for as long as we could keep our cover. This is how we did it.

Step One: Familiarise yourself with core concepts of Social Justice scholarship.

We experimented with nonsense hoaxes, and they didn’t work. To succeed at getting published, one has to familiarise oneself with the existing scholarship sufficiently to become conversant with some of its core concepts, the internal logic, and the scholars promulgating these.

These are rooted in a modern offshoot of the postmodern theory first developed in the late 1960s, which was later adapted to be more politically actionable in the late 1980s. These theories are found in “postcolonial studies”, “gender studies”, “ethnic studies”, “sexuality studies” and “fat studies”, and they make use of such approaches as “critical race theory”, “intersectionality”, “queer theory”, “discourse analysis”, “interpretive, qualitative analysis” and “autoethnography”.

Core concepts include:

  • Society is structured into systems of power, privilege and marginalisation.
  • People are positioned within these systems by their identity: race, gender, sexuality, weight, physical and mental abledness, etc.
  • Knowledge is socially constructed and relative dependent on group identity and related position in society.
  • Knowledge is constructed by discourses — ways of talking about things.
  • Systems of power and privilege are maintained by the dominant discourses which determine knowledge. These are in turn created by, maintained, and act in the service of those of privileged groups — straight, cisgendered, white, Western, able-bodied men.
  • Privileged groups are usually unable to see that the knowledge they consider at least provisionally established by science and/or reason is just one of many constructs, because they are accustomed to having their own kind of knowledge privileged by western modernity.

Therefore, people need to speak only to issues that involve their own identity group, and the knowledges of marginalised people need to be prioritised while the knowledges of dominant groups need to be deprioritised to achieve social justice.

Therefore, universal liberalism, science, reason, individuality, and humanism are all largely constructs of white, Western, masculinist, colonial power structures that are, at best, naive and blinkered and, at worst, cynically maintained to preserve privilege.

This perception of society must underlie the thesis of any paper you write.

Step Two: Formulate an absurd or abhorrent thesis.

The perception of society given above has to be “problematised”, which is to say criticised in a way that “makes oppression visible” within it so it might be “remediated”. To formulate a thesis, you have to think of something on the “dominant” end of a power dynamic that has to be made problematic.

The simplest way to do this is to take an existing ridiculous and/or unethical paper that already exists and apply it and its sources in a different area. For example, if you find a paper claiming that glaciology is sexist and could benefit from feminist approaches to human-ice interactions, you could write a paper arguing that astronomy requires the intervention of feminist and queer astrology to be properly and inclusively knowledge-producing. That went down rather well for us. Alternatively, if you find a number of papers arguing for the silencing or punishment of groups considered privileged, you could gather these together and use their arguments as precedent for, say, having white students sit on the floor in chains. That was also received positively.

You might also begin with something that seems obvious and pretend you’re from another planet and can’t figure it out without the use of elaborate social theories about privilege and power. For instance, you might think that the only reason that straight men have a sexual preference for cisgendered women is because they’re uncomfortable with how anal penetration might associate them with homosexuality and suggest that a useful remedy is for them to masturbate anally with sex toys. Or you might assume that the only reason professional bodybuilding is so obsessed with muscle is that it fails to recognise that it takes work to build and maintain a fat body and thus suggest that a category for “fat bodybuilding” is necessary to improve the sport. Both of these ideas were successful for us.

Once you are more familiar with the key concepts and the ways they are being used in grievance studies, you might want to do some mixing and matching and grab an assortment of  ideas from various fields and combine them to make a more original argument which is nevertheless horrible, unevidenced, and completely detached from reality. You could find inspiration in the endless streams of papers which find a way to read any male behaviour as inherently oppressive and misogynistic using highly interpretive and biased “discourse analysis”. Then enhance this sure winner with, perhaps, black feminist criminology and highly implausible data from which you have drawn unwarranted conclusions. Finally, admit your limitations as a human, rather than as a dog, and take the whole mess into the bizarre world of “animaling” to argue that the way people respond to their dogs’ behaviour shows that a human rape culture exists and that men should be trained like dogs to reduce its impact. That one could get you an award. It did for us, anyway.

Step Three: Write your paper

Once you have a general idea of the conclusion you’d like to draw, search for key terms in existing papers using academic searches or some existing familiarity with a handful of big papers, as obtained in Step One. From there, mine their references to find more papers upon which you can build your argument and follow the suggestions for similar papers provided by the publishers’ websites.

This will generate simply awe-inspiring quantities of nonsense that, as we found, could be used to support almost any problematising thesis, and so you can collect as much of this as possible to liberally pepper your paper with dozens of legitimate citations, producing the effect of thorough research and scholarly precedent. (NB, make an ongoing database of where you are finding what types of nonsense. This will tell you where to send your own.) You will find that by combining different kinds of unevidenced nonsense, you can produce seemingly original nonsense of your own which nevertheless appears authoritative. As a pro-tip: consider finding at least one paper that problematises, criticises, or “nuances” your primary references to give the impression of having really engaged the literature around those ideas.

Step Four: Get your tone right.

There are two essential features of this kind of paper and a failure to produce either of them is fatal.

a) Make sure that you approach any discussion of sex, gender, or sexuality as though you have no knowledge of biology at all and are even a bit vague on how the species homo sapiens is perpetuated. It often works best to imagine yourself to be an alien who has not encountered sexually dimorphic, sexually reproducing animals before and is trying to work out what it all means. Assume socialisation accounts for everything.

b) Problematise yourself. It is essential when addressing sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, fatphobia, or ableism not only to find it everywhere, but also to find your own attempts to combat them potentially sexist, racist, etc. The author must position herself and make a full disclosure of her own lamentable areas of privilege and how they are likely to invalidate her own work.

Step Five: Appease your reviewers.

Any academic can tell you that there are any number of strategies to getting your work accepted after your peer reviewers have pointed out what they think is wrong with it. We recommend the basest strategy of them all: reviewer appeasement. It doesn’t matter what the reviewers tell you is wrong with your ideas — especially if they found them problematic in some way. Just assume they’re absolutely right, go with it — and try to go big. This, of course, fundamentally undermines the integrity of your work entirely in every case where you assume you had good reasons for proceeding as you did. But it’s also the most important step when being minimally problematic and maximally politically hip is the primary pathway to publication. So, if the reviewers tell you to explain how you respected the dogs’ privacy while examining nearly 10,000 canine genitals, and while ignoring how farcical that is in the first place, make sure you add a few sentences to your paper which explain how seriously you took this ethical concern.

In summary, if you’re willing to spend a few months familiarising yourself with some of the big ideas in fashionable grievance studies theory — and feel free to lean on our papers to get you started — you can easily begin to write your own terrible grievance studies papers and have them validated at the pinnacle of their system for knowledge production. Just remember: if it’s not speaking problematisation to power, you’ve got no chance.